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The Kohen Quality in Every Jew: Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook zt”l on Chanukah

November 30, 2018

In only a few short lines the Talmud tells the remarkable story of Chanukah. We know it well: A single jug of oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, was found and used for lighting the Menorah. Oil that should have lasted for a single day miraculously lasted for eight (Talmud Shabbat 21).

Rabbi Abraham Kook zt”l taught that behind the basic facts of the story lies a deeper and more profound lesson (Ain Aya, Shabbat Vol. 1, p.65).

Oil is the inner part of the olive, its essence. When the Greeks entered the Temple and destroyed hundreds of flasks of oil, this attack represented only one aspect of their vicious assault. The Greeks most destructive assault was on the inner essence of the Jewish people. They began to defile and corrupt the very character and constitution of the Jew. As time went on, the Greeks aggressively attempted to quash the Jewish nation’s unique personality.

But there is something wondrous about the nature of the Jewish nation, says Rabbi Kook. We are a nation of priests – Mamlechet Kohanim (Exodus 19:6). Every single Jew is called a ‘kohen’, a priest. Every Jew has a ‘kohen quality’; an inner longing to live a life of holiness, sanctity and closeness to the Creator. This is the symbol of the little jug of oil sealed with the stamp of the High Priest. The deepest part of the Jew is his/her neshama; the heart of the Jew is always attached to the Divine.

Rabbi Kook uniquely taught that this remarkable idea is demonstrated in a Torah law. In the category of halacha that relate to the giving of tithes, we find that generally such donations were given to the Kohen and to the Levite. And yet there is one tithe, known as ‘maaser sheni’, which is not given to the Kohen. Rather, this tithe is designated for every Israelite. Every person in Israel would take a portion of their fruits and vegetables to Jerusalem and eat it in the holy city. At that moment each individual truly sensed his/her inner “kohen quality.” By eating holy tithes in a sacred setting, the Jew is likened to a Kohen.

Despite how things may appear on the outside there remains a ‘pure jug of oil’ on the inside.  The Jewish soul simply cannot be corrupted; stored carefully away in each of us is a purity that remains untouched and unblemished. This beautiful perspective sheds light on Rabbi Kook’s capacity to see the good in every Jew and his steadfast conviction that every Jew longs for holiness. This viewpoint when taken to heart is transformative. It sensitizes us to judge others not based on exteriors, rather to look for the depth in every person. It also affects the way in which we think of ourselves and our relationship to our Creator.

One of Rabbi Kook’s inspirational role models was the Rebbe of the Hasidic dynasty of Ger, Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905). Rabbi Kook could often be seen on Shabbat clutching in his arms one particular book, the Sfat Emet, the Rebbe of Ger’s insights on the weekly parsha.

In a passage from this book, the Sfat Emet asks: how could the Torah demand love of God from every Jew (Ve’ani Tefilla p.123)? Love is not something that can be dictated – either you love something or you don’t. The Rebbe suggested that the answer to this question can be found within the question itself –  the love of God is embedded within the soul of every Jew. It is not something that needs to be acquired, rather it is something that resides within each of us and merely needs to be cultivated and developed.

The flames of the menorah remind us of our inner holiness. Every person is a light.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook expressed this celebrated perspective with these poetic words:

Everyone must know
That deep within burns a candle.
No one’s candle is like someone else’s;
No one lacks a personal candle.

We all must know
That it is our task to reveal our light to the world,
To ignite it until it is a great flame
And to illuminate the universe.

Rabbi Goldscheider’s book on Chanukah, “The Light that Unites: A Chanukah Companion” is available from OU PressClick here for more information.